Bjarne Mastenbroek is unstoppable. Throughout his career, the renowned architect has proven he will make his vision happen — even when the odds are against him. From joining legendary Spanish architect, Enric Mirrales, as a fresh graduate and going on to partner with architecture firm De Architecten Group to starting his own firm, SeARCH.
His best-known creations include the Dutch embassy in Addis Ababa and his subterranean villa in Vals, Switzerland, of global Netflix fame from the BBC series, ‘The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes’. In recent years his focus has shifted, seen in the opening of his Amsterdam-based Hotel Jakarta design made from a modular wooden construction. Now Bjarne has become one of the faces of a global movement advocating timber construction to begin building a more sustainable future.
We got together with Bjarne to speak about his practice as an architect and his recent work with Atelier Munro. The collaboration is based on a shared understanding of the need for sustainability and durable craftsmanship, a love of perfectionism in design, and a strong conviction that the power to express a personal point of view lies in the details. Whether that’s in the clothing you wear or the buildings you create, in the case of Bjarne. The result is a capsule collection of convenient, contemporary pieces in an understated-yet-refined color palette. Designed by Bjarne to stand out on closer inspection, exactly like his buildings.
You’ve been an architect for about thirty years now, working in the same profession as your grandfather. We heard he may have worked on the Beethovenstraat building where the new House of Atelier Munro will open in a few months. A fascinating coincidence.
Yes, I was very surprised when Atelier Munro’s creative director, Joachim, told me about the location of the new store. I’m still not 100% sure about my grandfather’s role, but that block on Beethovenstraat was made by the company he worked for as a project-architect during the period it was built and it shows a lot of similarities to a building in Rotterdam that I know my grandfather worked on.
And now after all those years, you will create an installation for the new store?
Yes, it ties together the work of two people from the same family with 83 years between them. That’s quite impressive.
You’re known internationally for many things in the field of architecture, but fashion is somewhat of a new domain for you. Are there certain people who influenced your outlook on style?
There are two men who have made the biggest impression on me in my life. Not just in the way they dressed, but in everything: how they worked, the way they carried themselves.
First there was the Spanish architect, Enric Miralles, who was larger than life in many ways. He was a large man, 1.95 meters, 110 kilograms. When I was working there as a graduate architect in 1991, we often played basketball on his studio’s courtyard deck. He was quick as mercury, despite his big body. There was an element of surprise in everything he did. And he was such a wonderful guy too. Because of his kindness, no one could say “no” to any of his requests. He dressed in comfortable silhouettes, which made him even more approachable. He had a fluidity in the way he lived his life and presented himself that I have never experienced since.
Another person that had a similar effect on me was Eberhard van der Laan, who amongst other things, worked as my lawyer when I left De Architectengroep. He wasn’t outspoken in the way he dressed himself, but again, beyond his clothing, his personality was larger than life. He would impress everybody in any room he entered. There was a calmness in how he expressed himself. It would leave no one untouched. He was so loved by everybody in Amsterdam, where he was the mayor until a few months before he passed away in 2017. I will never forget seeing how many people were moved when news broke that he had died.
The way both men dressed reflected their life and personality perfectly. Not in a very outspoken or extraverted way, but on the level of details and small but distinct choices.
“Similar to clothing, buildings are a super important part of the identity of people. Let the people that inhabit a city build their own city. Let them express who they are, instead of forcing things upon them.”
How would you describe your own way of expressing yourself through clothing?
I like my clothing to be neutral, but of the highest quality. Made with attention, good fabrics, in timeless colors, fitting very well. I like my clothing to be well cut, showing the person inside the clothes. I feel all those things are reflected in the collaboration with Atelier Munro. I like blending in, but still expressing myself in a very subtle way.
You have been quite critical about the world of architecture in recent years. Would you say those observations also apply to the fashion industry?
Nowadays, in any industry almost everything is about profit. You could even say that most industries are ‘sick’. We are living in an extremely ‘ill’ world. And as many people have become aware of this in recent years, it’s time to start changing things dramatically towards a more sustainable and ‘healthy’ way of living. This is also the case with the fashion industry.
I think what we need are garments or even fabrics that are made with love and attention, based on traditions and craftsmanship. What we don’t need is mass-produced, heavily trend-inspired clothing being transported all over the globe to maintain the lowest margins. We have known for quite some years now how harmful this approach is for planet and humans. That needs to stop.
How can the world of architecture become healthier, in your opinion?
In architecture many choices are still being made for the wrong reasons. And I understand this, because going against the grain is still extremely difficult. One of my friends is an architect-turned-developer. He really tried to do everything in the most sustainable way, but when he applied the approach to developing a major housing complex, it became almost impossible to survive. He still went ahead with it, because of his conviction this was the only way forward. So, despite enormous housing demand in Amsterdam, he will not make anything on such a project. While other projects, made without any regard of the impact made in the process, will be sold with enormous profits.
Trying to do good is very hard, especially when the alternative is to just take the money and run, without asking questions. The reward for not doing the right thing is much higher. So, it takes a very strong mindset to do good.
“It ties together the work of two people from the same family with 83 years between them. That’s quite impressive.”
When did you feel you needed to go against the grain?
I was asked to design a wooden house by a client 15 years ago. That became the first spark that lit the fire to search for alternatives in how I do things as an architect. Exploring more sustainable methods, I realized that building in wood is way cleaner than building in concrete, which has been the standard for 70 years now. I wanted to explore older standards of building, which eventually made me realize that wooded houses lock CO2 into their structure. And more importantly, when building in wood, we could close the loop by planting more trees again. The same way we have been doing for centuries until we stopped major forestry in favor of fossil fuels about 200 years ago.
It took another 8 years for me to realize wood could and should be used in large scale projects and that we need to drastically curb our concrete addiction. Around that time, we proposed our wooden design for the Jakarta Hotel to a developer. Eventually we won and from that moment on I really felt the power of this new approach to make a difference.
“Culture is made by the things that last. Not the things that turn out to have been fashionable. Or the things that are made badly and seize to function over time. This applies as much to cities as it does to clothing, for that matter. It should be about people, again. That’s what I stand for in everything I do.”
Was that when you became aware of what it truly means to continue this path of building more sustainably?
Yes, very much so. Since Hotel Jakarta we haven’t received another assignment to build in wood on that scale yet. A lot of clients go there, but I’ve been told countless times by developers, “I would love a design like this, but make it cheaper!” That’s not the way it works. With a project like Hotel Jakarta, it’s not about cheap or expensive. It’s not about money. It’s about a mindset.
You have mentioned before that you are a perfectionist.
To me the details in buildings are very important. Those details express how something is built, the way it is made. Aesthetics are often just about how things look. As Steve Jobs once said in a Wired interview, “Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” That’s how I see architecture. In good urban planning it’s often about generic buildings. They cater to work, living, education. I feel that those buildings have no need to stand out. Next to those majority of buildings you have “specials”: museums, a post office, an iconic building here or there. A good city is not about the standouts. A good city is about functionality. How people live, meet, and connect.
I feel similar about fashion. It’s all about how clothing embraces a body. It’s about what’s inside. I was quite impressed by Atelier Munro’s style advisor, Jasper, who was measuring me for our collaboration. During that session, I put on a suit and thought it looked fine. But he told me it was far from fine and started to tweak it everywhere. He adapted it perfectly to my body.
It’s all about the details. Is that true for what you like to wear too?
At a certain point in my life, I realized that you could buy made-to-measure clothing that fit perfectly. As I said before, I’m not looking to stand out with my clothing. In fact, I almost don’t want you to see that the clothing is completely selected by me. I want it to blend in, but still fit perfectly. I wouldn’t feel comfortable standing out. Sometimes I see people who do and it’s great, but I just wouldn’t feel comfortable.
That seems to be a parallel with your work. Singular, but not in a loud way. Built from a perfectionist approach, but not showing off.
Yes, I agree. I don’t like showing off. I like this idea of standing out at the very last moment when someone passes, instead of being right in your face. I like to go in-depth with things. Really work things out, give it time, find true understanding in what I’m doing. That way of approaching things is so much more rewarding. You don’t need to know that something took a lot of time, but you’ll discover it in the details. You will see it in the way a building functions. That’s what I really like about design. And not just in buildings, but in clothing too
“I like my clothing to be neutral, but of the highest quality. Made with attention, good fabrics, in timeless colors, fitting very well. I like my clothing to be well cut, showing the person inside the clothes. I feel all of those things are reflected in the collaboration with Atelier Munro. I like blending in, but still express myself in a very subtle way.”
Our photoshoot took place in the SeARCH office, which seems to have the same approach of aesthetics and functionality. Tell us about the space.
It was originally a warehouse that at some point became a Toyota garage for a long period of time. When we moved in 20 years ago, we only added some windows for extra light, added a steel and glass facade to create offices, built in some prefab toilets and we painted the ceiling white. We added the plants some years later. Despite 20 years of use, it still looks crisp. It didn’t fade in any way. The patina you see is almost like a polish.
We didn’t have the money to finish it the way we wanted when we moved in, but we added things over time. Maybe in 5 or 10 years we will add more things, layering the design and making it better over time. That’s why I don’t want to leave here. I continue to love the space.
This approach of layering design, creating things that show new qualities and character over time, is that important to you?
Like clothing, buildings are a super important part of the identity of people. After a century the ‘Amsterdamse School’ is still extremely relevant for the people that live in Amsterdam. I don’t want to see more of those generic, flat-roofed buildings that have popped up all throughout the city. Let the people who inhabit a city build their own city. Let them express who they are, instead of forcing things upon them.
It will take individuals, like yourself, to present alternatives for the generic choices. If you build something, or wear certain clothing, which is durable and personal, it will speak to people. You can see this in your curated collection and I’m sure we’ll see it in your work for the House of Atelier Munro.
Culture is made by the things that last. Not the things that turn out to have been fashionable. Or the things that are made badly and seize to function over time. This applies as much to cities as it does to clothing, for that matter. It should be about people, again. That’s what I stand for in everything I do.
Get inspired by Bjarne’s curated collection. You can check out his installation for the House of Atelier Munro Amsterdam when it is unveiled in November this year.